The Magnificent Mini-Movies We Take for Granted

Some of the best movies I've seen have been... trailers.

This week I’d like to delve a bit into some of the movies playing at the local cinema. Not the big-budget Hollywood blockbusters or the indie flick that comes and goes, but rather the trailers–those often wonderful mini-movies before the maxi-movie (that one won’t catch) whose job is to get you into the theater in the future.

Yes, trailers are ads. But like some advertisements, they’re often works of art in their own right. And who doesn’t love trailers? Sometimes, the trailer is the best thing you see that night.  In fact, I remember going to see… I don’t even remember what, but it was in East Lansing, Michigan, a movie to just kill time, and they showed the trailer to the Coen Brothers‘ Miller’s Crossing… and, oh boy, did I want to see that one. My friend, Andy, and I sat agape and I leaned over to him when the trailer ended and asked, “What is it we’re seeing again?” For a moment, he couldn’t remember.

I love it when the creators of the trailer (and it is never, or almost never, the film’s director and editor who did the work) try their damnedest to make their own little movie. Take, for example, All the President’s Men. The original trailer, released before the film hit the screens, and without mentioning all its Oscar nominations. This is a brilliant little short in its own right–a photo roman, a movie told with still pictures, much like Chris Marker’s La Jetee. I have the feeling that whomever worked on this wanted to use the still picture much in the same way a newspaper would, but they are clearly influenced by Marker’s wonderful short.

Leave it to Orson Welles to completely undermine the effectiveness of a trailer, yet make one that stands out as perhaps one of the greatest trailers ever made. His F for Fake trailer is nine minutes long. Nine minutes! These are supposed to be short ads, but Welles treated his trailer as if it were a reduction of a fine wine, a concentrated version of the documentary that the viewer would relish in its own right.

Trailers have come a long way. I love looking at the trailers on DVDs of old movies, but really they’re not very good, except as an exercise in nostalgia. Most of them spelled out exactly what you were going to see, some “Drama!” or “Suspense!”, always with the ubiquitous exclamation point, mentioning the source novel if there was one, the notoriety of the producer or director, and then some hyperbolic claim, like “The screen has never seen such adventure!” All of which I find terribly amusing, but never moving.

Sometimes, though, the earnestness is a bit touching, as when Hank Fonda entreats us to go see The Ox-Bow Incident, which is a great movie.

Crazy, huh? Let’s skip forward again to the present day, and examine the dark side of these things. How many times have trailers failed and made a movie look awful? One of my favorite films of all time, Children of Men, had a trailer that looked so bad, made it seem schmaltzy and full of clumsy narration (which isn’t in the final cut, if it was ever intended for the end product), that I almost didn’t see it.

On the other hand, there’s Little Children (2006), which coincidentally I saw on the same day as the former–two “Children’s” in a day. This trailer still haunts me: it’s beautiful, exciting, sexy and, deeply moving. The use of the train, the pace which speeds up to its dramatic conclusion, and Kate Winslet… well, I’ll take Kate in anything. But Children didn’t live up to this high standard. I’d call it terrible, in fact, a nearly loathsome examination of infidelity, lacking the subtlety that is so brilliant in the short film. The director (Todd Field) and writer (Tom Perrotta) seem to hate their characters. In the trailer, they’re lovely people. Maybe it’s because they keep their mouths shut for the most part, and we’re only seeing them. I don’t know. Enjoy the trailer. Avoid the movie.

I have to include a shout-out, however, to one of the great trailers that perfectly captured one of my favorite movies: Inglourious Basterds (2009). Basterds is a hell of a picture to try and summarize, much less winnow down to two minutes. So the editors of the trailer focused on the Basterds, avoiding the plight of Shosanna, etc. It seems as if we’re going to follow Aldo Raine and his Basterds through the entire story (actually, they’re in less than half the picture). And so what? It works beautifully. I love the blood-splattered titles…

That’s a great summation, and uses one of the great speeches in movie history to inspire you to get out and see this damn thing.

Interestingly enough, Tarantino’s Kill Bill remains his most popular film in Asia. Not to be outdone by that one, the Weinsteins’ made sure that their editors (whomever they may be) made the Japanese trailer seem like less of a new movie than Kill Bill Volume 3. “In Nazi occupied France, she wanted… Revenge!” Now the Basterds‘ trailer moves away from Aldo and into the story of Shosanna… which might actually be the true center of the story. Notice, too, the color scheme of the titles is the same yellow and black of Kill Bill.

I’ll leave you with the great teaser trailer of The Social Network. This one fascinates me because it takes awhile to get to the actual story. For a movie that its backers hoped would attract Facebook’s huge following, the teaser–that first trailer meant to spark interest in the movie–is terribly critical of Facebook users. It shows Facebook pages, all the while a girl’s choir sings Radiohead’s “Creep”, before diving into what the movie’s about. So now the trailer becomes not-so-veiled social criticism of the site, and its people, which is a strong undercurrent of The Social Network, and I’ll give them credit for not shying away from that side of the film. I’ll also give them credit for a great trailer, which also made me hunger for this one.

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